GOP suspends rules to push through EPA pick despite Dem boycott

GOP suspends rules to push through EPA pick despite Dem boycott
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Republicans on a Senate committee on Thursday suspended panel rules to force a vote on President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nominee over a Democratic protest.

Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee, led by Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoThis week: GOP seeks to advance tax overhaul Dissent is democratic: Stop calling McCain, Corker, Flake RINOs The farm bill presents a chance to lighten the regulatory burden of farmers MORE (R-Wyo.), changed the rules governing a quorum so that only the panel’s Republicans needed to be in attendance to approve Scott Pruitt’s nomination to lead the EPA.

The committee’s full roster of Republicans — including Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsCurtis wins Chaffetz's former Utah House seat Overnight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny FBI can’t unlock Texas shooter’s phone MORE (R-Ala.), whose nomination to be attorney general is awaiting consideration on the Senate floor — attended Thursday’s hearing and approved Pruitt on an 11-0 vote.

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Democrats protested Pruitt’s hearing for a second straight day, refusing to enter the hearing to deny the committee a quorum. Previous rules required at least two members of the minority party, but committee Republicans voted unanimously to approve Pruitt’s nomination.

Pruitt’s nomination now goes to the floor, where he appears likely to win confirmation. No Republican has come out against his nomination, though the vast majority of Democrats are likely to oppose him.

Thursday’s legislative maneuver means Senate Republicans have changed committee rules twice this week to overcome Democratic protests against nominees. The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday changed its rules to clear the way for approval of Steven Mnuchin to lead the Treasury Department and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to be secretary of Heath and Human Services.

“We took this extraordinary step because the minority members of the committee took the extraordinary step of boycotting the business meeting to approve an EPA administrator for an incoming administration,” Barrasso said after the vote went through.

“The minority has put us in this, unchartered waters. Never before in the history of the EPA has a new president’s incoming administration nominee been boycotted.”

Barrasso and his Republican colleagues boycotted a 2013 vote to confirm Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyOvernight Energy: EPA releases ozone findings | Lawmakers come out against Perry grid plan | Kids sue Trump on climate change Congress must come to terms on climate change regulation EPA to repeal landmark Obama climate rule MORE as administrator, though they eventually gave in. Barrasso said that was different, because a president deserves special treatment for his first Cabinet.

“Elections have consequences, and a new president is entitled to put in place people who will advance his agenda, the agenda that the people voted for when they elected him president,” Barrasso said.

The panel’s Democrats slammed the GOP’s maneuver as “irresponsible,” citing Pruitt’s failure to give full answers to numerous questions and requests they have.

“We have made our requests perfectly clear, and I believe they are entirely reasonable — so reasonable, in fact, that my Republican colleagues made the same requests of our last nominee to lead the EPA, who actually worked to address their requests,” ranking member Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperSenate confirms top air regulator at EPA Senate panel delays vote on Trump’s Homeland Security pick Overnight Energy: Senators grill Trump environmental pick | EPA air nominee heads to Senate floor | Feds subpoena ex-Trump adviser over biofuels push MORE (D-Del.) said in a statement.

“I am disappointed that our majority has decided to ignore our concerns and those of the American people, and break the committee’s rules in an effort to expedite Mr. Pruitt's nomination, but we have to stand our ground in our pursuit of the truth and in fulfillment of our Constitutional duty with respect to nominations.”

“He’s dodged our questions, ignored our letters, and told us go to the back of the line and make open records requests to get the information we are entitled to,” said Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseTech companies grilled over Russian election interference Hitting GOP, Dems pitch raising 401(k) caps Democrats double down on calls for Congress to protect Mueller MORE (D-R.I.).

“There are at least 3,000 emails his office admits exist,” Whitehouse said. “Who knows how many other communications there are between his web of political committees, dark money groups, and fossil fuel companies.” Committee Republicans disputed that, however, saying Pruitt answered 1,000 more questions than any other nominee to lead the agency.

Democrats say Pruitt is so conservative, and such a hostile litigant against the EPA during his time as Oklahoma’s attorney general, that he threatens the agency’s mission.

Republicans support Pruitt’s nomination because they consider him a potential agent of change in the EPA, an administrator able to undo some of the regulatory measures undertaken by the Obama administration.

“To the members of this committee, I tell you I pledge to move the nomination of Attorney General Scott Pruitt to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, as expeditiously as possible,” Barrasso said on Wednesday. 

— Updated at 11:20 a.m.